Which side will you pick in this skirmish between Michigan’s heritage pig producers and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources*? And is this just the latest battle in a larger and escalating war between family farmers and Big Farma?
On one side of this fight stands the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Michigan Pork Producers Association (MPPA). On the other side are roughly 2,000 small farmers like Mark Baker of Green Acres Farm in Marion. The industrial agriculture folks and state government have instituted new regulations they say are necessary to protect our state from an “invasive species,” the feral pigs roaming wild in the woods. Their argument is that escaped animals are not only dangerous beasts but they have the potential to cause epidemics of diseases like pseudorabies that threaten Michigan’s pork industry.
On the other side, farmer Mark says the regulations as written spell doom for small operations like his that have less than 500 animals, the ones that specialize in heritage breeds. He says this has less to do with protecting the state from an invasive species and more to do with eliminating alternatives to the factory farm model that consumers are learning to prefer.
Small operations like Mark’s do not currently pose much of a threat to the huge hog monoliths. But he believes that the higher fuel prices associated with “peak oil” will inevitably make those huge industrial operations unsustainable. From his perspective, Michigan’s multi-million-dollar industrial pork operators do not want consumers to have a choice. In this view, the DNR “thugs” had hoped to enforce these new regulations to put farmers like him out of business before consumers had the chance to notice.
Let me state my biases clearly. Decades ago, as managing editor of Michigan Farmer magazine, I visited a hog confinement facility outside Cassopolis and was horrified by what I saw as farming’s future. What I found was not old MacDonald’s farm but MacDonald’s industrial food at its worst. Pigs crammed into confined spaces where they never see the light of day or feel a breeze. Animals fed huge doses of antibiotics, a practice that keeps these animals on the threshold of illness as it also threatens our future access to effective drugs when we might need them.
You can say that my perspective disqualifies me from commenting fairly. Or you can consider that my background makes me uniquely informed about these issues. The bottom line for me is that we need to move away from allowing government to pick corporate farm winners and punish family farmers like Mark who are revolutionizing small family farm operations by offering consumers much-needed choices.
The new DNR regulations
Mark told me during our phone conversation today that he first heard about the threat to his small hog operation when chefs in Detroit called to warn him that the DNR appeared to have operations like his in their sights. The new regulations were vague, but the chefs were concerned that the regulations might cut off their access to farmers who provide them “charcuterie.” The term refers to various forms of salted and cured pork that foodies consider delicacies for which they will pay top dollar. As the video of Mark above attests, he also supplies the chefs with lardo, a particularly creamy form of backfat that top chefs crave.
If the DNR and the MPPA had hoped these new regulations would go into effect without a fight, they hadn’t counted on ex-military man Mark. He is not a native Michigan farmer, but one of the new breed of sustainable farmers who are finding innovative ways to serve niche markets with creative products. He saw the danger to his operation in these new regulations, and he enlisted the help of State Senator Darwin Booher to push for clarification.
Embedded below is the Michigan DNR’s Declaratory Ruling. MPPA Executive Vice President Sam Hines told me that the intent of the regulations was not to close down operations like Mark’s, but to clean up the problem posed by the pigs escaping into the wild from some of the private hunting preserves springing up around our state.
However, instead of making clear that operations like Mark’s are exempt, the declaratory ruling issued in December lists traits that heritage breeds like his Mangalitsa exhibit as hallmarks of the animals that must be slaughtered within weeks.
Mark filed for an injunction to prevent the ruling from going into effect. A spokesperson for the DNR said they cannot comment because of the pending lawsuit. An email from a representative of the Michigan Department of Agriculture said that this is the DNR’s call and that the department supports the pork industry in Michigan: “It is a $500 million part of our food and agriculture economy. It is important for this industry for the state to maintain our Pseudorabies (PRV) free status.”
This is a perfect example of government and bureaucrats moving their own agendas forward with total disregard for the law, private property rights and the Constitution. Most importantly, it leaves Mark Baker – a man who has served our country honorably – little choice but to take action on his own to protect his family’s way of life from an overzealous state department. Beyond Mark, there are farmers all across Michigan that the DNR dictates must depopulate their animals because they are invasive species simply based on looks.
The hunting preserve issue
According to Mark, hunting preserves are also being given a bad rap in the process. He views these enterprises as an important part of agri-tourism, allowing ag-entrepreneurs a way to make a living in rural areas.
Mark argues that the preserves cater to an emerging need. He says that in part because of DNR policies, the number of hunters opening fire in the woods during hunting season has escalated to the point where many serious hunters are looking for a safe alternative to share their love of hunting with their kids. These 100-acre hunting preserves provide deer, elk and even pigs for people to stalk and shoot.
Critics argue these operations are like shooting fish in a barrel, because the operators put out feeders that lure the animals where the hunters can find them. However, Mark says that busy people can’t afford to spend five days hunting only to return home with nothing. These preserves provide people a way to put fresh, healthy and nutritious meat on the table while enjoying a sport they enjoy.
One man’s meat is another man’s . . .
From Mark’s perspective, the fight has less to do with protecting the state’s pork producers from a threat from feral swine and more to do with the threat his kind of pork poses to the industry as consumers become educated about the drawbacks to “the other white meat” coming from factory farms.
In many ways, the argument echoes the fight about pit bulls. The real problem is not the breed, but the owner. But communities unable or unwilling to spend what it takes to shut down dog fighting are instead outlawing the dogs — which pit bull lovers view as breed discrimination. In this case, the government and the MPPA seem unwilling or incapable of identifying the operators whose pigs are escaping into the wild and dealing with them. And the new regulations in this case have the added advantage of shutting down emerging competitors who might make consumers pause to ponder how that pork chop was raised.
A fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say”), Mark said that wants the chance to live what he believes in. He moved to Michigan to launch his operation because he wants to raise his children on a farm that he operates in concert with nature with his humanely raised pigs, and he’s proud to show people his operation.
What he doesn’t want is government interference. “If this ISO stands, it threatens our Fourth Amendment rights,” he says. “I don’t want to look up someday and find some lady with a clipboard from the DNR is able to come onto my land without a warrant.”
In the name of food safety, government is promulgating new regulations that raise serious questions about whether the corporate agriculture model is the right way to accomplish that goal. Should people who know the risks have the right to consume raw milk? Will banning the family dog from our farms really make our food supply safer? Is the government’s refusal to label GMO foods a step forward or 10 steps back?
*Michigan Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources – Yes, I know that this is the proper name of the newly merged Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Department of Agriculture as of January 8. However, the state of Michigan continues to show both as separate entities on its website, and this is a case where it is not clear that both agencies are working as one.